The Ecphorizer

An Assignment in China
Tod Wicks

Issue 04 (January 2005)

continues his first-person account of working in China

n the 1980s my work in the international division a manufacturer of telecommunications switching equipment had seen me travel to numerous countries around the world, often for months at a time. In those years I was sent to the People's Republic of China for two three-month tours. The first tour, in

A young man was standing nearby...and noticed that we looked lost

March through May of 1986, saw me in Hangzhou for five weeks, then Fuzhou and Jinan for five weeks. Now, Fuzhou and Jinan by no means resemble the New York-Washington or San Francisco-Los Angeles axes here in the US. In fact, air travel between these two cities is practically nonexistent. Our options were reduced to one: Take a train from Fuzhou to Jinan, a trip that we originally understood would take 16 hours. Much to our surprise, we soon found out from our car porter that it would be a 36-hour trip!

This particular rail journey was thrust upon us by rather extraordinary travel conditions that existed in China at that time. China was experiencing a rather unprecedented year in tourism, and hotels in Beijing1 were overflowing. To get to Jinan, which is closer to Beijing than to Fuzhou, we would have to take a plane to Beijing, then take a train to Jinan. But the airplane would arrive in Beijing after the train left for Jinan, and we would have to find a (non-existent) hotel room for the night, so we could take the train the next day. Since there were no hotel rooms, our only option was to take the train from Fuzhou.

To get to Fuzhou, we were to fly from Hong Kong. This was supposed to be a 2-hour trip. As we approached Fuzhou, I saw the flaps extend2 and we descended into a fog bank. The pilot moved the plane this way and that as it seemed like he was feeling his way down. After an interminable time (actually nearly an hour), the plane sped up and began climbing, and the flaps retracted. We were told that the fog was too heavy for a safe landing. We later discovered that only two or three airports in China were blessed with ground navigation facilities, and Fuzhou wasn't one of them, which meant that the pilot had to fly by visual rules, rather than instruments! And he just didn't trust the fog, especially with mountains ringing part of the city! Lucky us!

So, we landed in Xiamen (also known as Amoy -- on the straits of Quemoy, off Taiwan). We were herded into the terminal building to go through customs. Now, our party had some 20 boxes of electronic parts and related high-tech matter, and the Fuzhou customs were ready for us with the proper forms. Here in Xiamen, though, customs didn't quite know how to handle this situation. After much negotiation (and our having to give up several packs of valuable cigarettes3), we convinced the customs officials to just leave our goods aboard the plane.

Then we were bussed into town, arriving at the local hotel tired and dusty. Oops! The hotel was already fully booked and there were no rooms! Well, Leo (our colleague from the Hong Kong office, also our translator), Daunna (my wife), and I trudged outside to think things over. A young man was standing nearby chatting with a taxi driver, and noticed that we looked lost (a vegetable could have deduced that!). He walked up to Leo and a long discussion ensued. Leo came over to Daunna and me, and explained that this guy would help us. Not only would he find us a hotel room, but also he would take us to a restaurant. Then the next morning he would arrive in a taxi and get us out to the airport. Well, that sounded absolutely splendid! And how many cartons of cigs would this cost? Leo said that cigarettes hadn't even figured into the deal.

The local guy would pay for everything and we would reimburse him straight across the board. To understand how he would stand to gain, you need to know that there were [at that time] two currencies in China. Renminbi is the currency that locals use. When a foreigner cashes money or traveler's checks, the currency given is called FECs (foreign exchange certificates), and they are supposed to have a 1:1 ratio to renminbi. Not so. With FECs a local can go into stores that sell foreign goods and appliances, and buy such for himself. Generally these items are prized over locally manufactured items, and Chinese will give foreigners good black-market exchange rates. Sounds good? Yeah, but many places will not accept renminbi from foreigners, so it really doesn't buy you much. Sometimes you can buy dinner or pay a taxi driver, but mostly you have to get rid of it at free markets, where vendors aren't so particular.

So, we agreed to the deal proposed by our host. He found a "hotel"4 for us, and got us checked in. We then found a restaurant situated at the top of winding stairs, the width of which was about two feet. Hardly a comfortable margin when winding your way upwards. After a filling and tasty meal our host took us to a school, which featured a rotunda whose walls were decorated with paintings of a variety of famous intellectuals. We were quite surprised to find two westerners among the group: Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein. Each of the paintings was accompanied by a description. These were written in pinyin5 as well as in Chinese characters. The Chinese phonetic spelling of these two familiar names was Fa-len-ka-lin and Ai-en-stai-en (as written in pinyin).

After a good night's rest and a breakfast of Chinese porridge, we took the taxi back to the airport to wait for the call to board our plane. After several hours, we all boarded and took off for what we hoped was Fuzhou. We actually landed in yet another city! The fog hadn't cleared and we couldn't keep circling the mountains. We were treated to a lunch at the Nanchang airport, and we were all nearly finished when the crew came running in and gathered us up. The fog had lifted and we needed to hustle into the aircraft! So, we finally landed in Fuzhou 25 hours later than planned. All this so we could catch our train to get to our ultimate destination of Jinan!

Well, I dearly love to ride trains most anywhere in the world. The train we rode on for this trip was pulled by an honest-to-goodness steam locomotive. Our trip began at noon and ended the following midnight. Our route took us through many switching yards and we had ample opportunity to visit the past as we observed numerous steam-powered switch engines moving cars to and fro.

As foreign travelers we were billetted in what amounted to a first-class compartment: room for six to sit during the day, with four beds (two upper and two lower) for the sleeping arrangements. We didn't have much freedom of movement through the train during our journey so it was spent almost exclusively in our compartment. Our activities included lots of reading and a large amount of time at the window watching the landscape zip past as we sped across the eastern Chinese countryside. These activities were punctuated by the occasional trip to the restroom, the porter refilling our large thermos bottle with hot water for tea, and trips to the dining car.

On one such trip we saw another passenger with what appeared to be a crispy fried fish. We ordered one and all three of us dug in with high expectations. One bite was all each of us took as it turned out to be one of the most rotten fish any of us had ever tasted. The other passenger noticed our uneaten fish on his way out and made some comment that Leo told us mirrored our own sentiments about the fish.

At one point I pulled out a Playboy magazine and proceeded to catch up on some reading. Upon seeing this Leo had a fit. He explained that magazines such as Playboy were banned in China. Well, what could I do for now? I finished reading it and was about to put it away when Leo asked to read it. I never saw it again and as we neared our destination I asked about it. Leo said that he had tossed it out the window some time back into a field. I can just imagine the delight of the field hands as they came across this example of decadent western culture!

As we ended our ride I reflected a bit on our journey: In many ways it resembled European train travel in the 60s, and in other ways it was completely foreign.

A day late we arrived in Jinan and were met by our hosts; we got down to work the next day...but that's anothr story. All in all, a most entertaining travel adventure!


  1  That's pronounced bay-jing! If the Chinese wanted you to pronounce the "j" like zh (as in Brezhnev), they would have spelled it Beizhing!

  2 This is done to add surface area on the wings to increase lift while the aircraft is flying slower than usual.

  3 No, we don't smoke, and I don't condone smoking. However, the realities of business in certain countries dictate that you bring a good supply for bargaining purposes.

  4  Actually a guest house. There are differences in standards and services, and rarely do you find English-speaking staff at a guest house. However, any port in a storm...

  5  Pinyin is the currently popular system used for romanized representation of Chinese ideographs. The other system, popularized in the 19th century by the British, is known as Wade-Giles notation. You can spot the differences: Beijing is pinyin, Wade-Giles spells it Peking; similarly Hangzhou = Hangchow and Mao Zedong = Mao Tse-Tung. Nixon = Nixon. 

"An Assigment in China" is an original first-person story by Tod Wicks

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